#FEMSmicroBlog: The Plague, an infamous pathogen in classic literature


Plagues have tormented humanity since time immemorable, with disastrous epidemics during the Middle Ages, and many literary works use it as a theme. “The Plague” (1947) by Albert Camus (1913-1960), prominent French writer and Nobel Prize for Literature, is one notorious example. Wojciech Smułek summarizes for us the main ideas dealt with by the book in this #FEMSmicroBlog entry. #MicrobiologyInArt

One of the (many) pandemic-themed books is “The Plague” (1947) by Albert Camus. Camus set the action of his book in Oran, a city in Algeria, which was a French colony at the time of the novel’s action.  The author creates a fascinating and engaging description of a city experiencing the horror of a deadly disease. Focusing on people’s behavior, Camus does not shy away from detailed descriptions of the course of the diseases, and the attempts to cure it.

(The Bad Bugs Bookclub at Manchester University, initiated and led by Joanna Verran, our Science Communication Awardee 2023, also read The Plague by Albert Camus! Find their reading report on the BBB website)

A small bacterium causing great fear

The main character is Bernard Rieux, a doctor who is on the front line of the fight against the epidemic. Through his work, Dr. Rieux observes how residents react to the news of the disease, how they suffer from it, and how they pass away. The novel, which falls into the existentialist genre, is a passionate panorama of human attitudes in the face of a silent yet ruthless threat.

The fear of the plague by the people of Oran should not come as a surprise. For millennia, the plague has afflicted humanity as one of the most contagious and deadliest infectious diseases. The causative agent has been known since 1894 when microbiologist Alexandre Yersin of the Pasteur Institute identified the bacterium responsible for a plague epidemic in China. Its Latin Yersinia pestis owes his first (genus) name to him.

In the novel, Albert Camus tends to focus on the disease without lingering on the description of the pathogen, even though the bacterium responsible for the plague was already known and described at the time. Was the author not interested in the scientific aspects of the causative agent? Or was he concerned that such details would subvert the existentialist tone of the novel?

Cover of the first edition of “The Plague” (1947) by Albert Camus.
A pandemic of evil

Albert Camus wrote “The Plague” at a time when newspapers reported time and again about plague outbreaks in China, India and other countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Although these pandemics were local, the threat of them was in the minds of all people. Memories of great epidemics in the Middle Ages were alive. The plague, with its characteristic rapid progression, the changes induced in the body of the diseased, and elevated mortality, induced fear.

Throughout narration and dialogues, it seems that in “The Plague” the disease is only a pretext to describe the human condition and society. The progression of the disease symbolizes the moral degeneration of man, and the spread of the epidemic illustrates the intolerance, aggression or indifference sweeping society. These negative phenomena do not come abruptly, but build up gradually, and by the time their symptoms are perfectly visible, it is too late to fight the disease. This vision of the writer becomes all the more clear when we realize that the novel was written in the early 1940s, when the whole world would soon learn the consequence of the spread of totalitarianism.

Does the plague bacillus ever die?

To the pathogen that causes the plague, Camus returns finally in the last sentences of his book. Dr. Rieux thinks about people rejoicing over the end of the epidemic but does not share their optimism as he says that “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” The plague pathogen is for Albert Camus a symbol of many infections afflicting humanity, like hatred and war.

To this day, we have not managed to eliminate Yersinia pestis. Local outbreaks occur in tropical and subtropical regions. In many ways indeed the book “The Plague” by Albert Camus remains tragically relevant.


About the author

Wojciech Smułek is doctor of chemical sciences, scientist and university lecturer associated with the Poznan University of Technology (Poland). He is fascinated by issues related to the use of natural surfactants and the interaction of chemical compounds with microorganism cells. Full member of the Polish Chemical Society and the Polish Society of Microbiologists. Since 2022 he is postdoc at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark).

About this blog section

The section #MicrobiologyInArt will present examples of microbiology in literature, cinema, comic books, songs, graphic art, modern/contemporary art, video(games), photography, dance, and others. A particular focus is on what could people learn from those examples, or how they can raise awareness on microbiology topics, issues, and potentials.

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